Recycling and Reusing Seedling Trays and Pots in the Backyard Garden

Updated on May 8, 2019
A small frog on one of our garden bed fences. We love having them in the garden.
A small frog on one of our garden bed fences. We love having them in the garden. | Source

The Organic Backyard Gardeners Credo: Eco-Friendly Habitat Maintenance

A major benefit of organic backyard gardening is the production of food on site, no delivery needed; as well as eco-friendly habitat maintenance. As an organic backyard gardener, I love my frogs, toads, salamanders, and other beneficials and so I would never even consider using sprays or toxins in the garden or anywhere around my home because I know these creatures need my support and protection as much as I need their help. It is a well-established fact that the amphibious class is the most sensitive to sprays and toxins and therefore the ones who are most quickly disappearing from our backyard landscapes.

I am also an avid recycler and re-user, and prefer to keep it simple and keep it green whenever possible. After all, my goal is safe, extremely nutritious, and healthy food and environs for myself and my family, my loved ones, and all of Earth’s creatures, so I am kind of 'on a kick' that way.

DIY Compost Tumbler made from a recycled 55-gallon plastic food grade barrel.
DIY Compost Tumbler made from a recycled 55-gallon plastic food grade barrel. | Source

Recycling and Reusing: Mimicking Mother Nature

Most of us organic backyard gardeners prefer to compost rather than use a garbage pail, we prefer to mulch rather than spray chemicals and we also tend to be packaging- and ingredient-aware shoppers for those things we do shop for. Just because we grow vegetables doesn't mean we never go shopping, after all.

We like tools that last and we like to save up our dollars and resources to buy things like new exotic plants or creative art supplies.

We'd much rather re-design the flower garden than spend the afternoon at the mall looking aimlessly at more 'stuff' we could haul home and need to find a place for.

We're just not your average 'consumer' minded individual. We'd rather figure out how to do it ourselves with what we have in the garage lying about than go buy all new materials to do anything.

However, there are limits to everything, and you cannot simply reuse everything forever. Sometimes you actually do have to make investments in new things; like new exotic plants, or a box of watercolor pencils...

What do you do to get rid of weeds?

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We use seedling trays a lot. These were used to start vegetables in our green house.
We use seedling trays a lot. These were used to start vegetables in our green house. | Source

Cleaning Seedling Trays for Reuse

When it comes to seedling pots and trays used for starting vegetables from seed, we are happy to reuse them. We constantly re-purpose other types of containers (particularly food containers) for the garden. However, our zeal for re-purposing and reuse is tempered by our experiences as students of natural systems. We understand that harmful nematodes or fungi, or even plant diseases can be inadvertently spread by contaminated tools, pots or soil mixtures.

Experience has taught us, sometimes painfully, that a lack of care in the proper cleaning and preparation of our equipment can lead to dire consequences. Unfortunately this enthusiasm for cleanliness has historically led straight to the use of household bleach.

Indeed, most of us still seem to be wildly complacent about chlorine bleach.

In particular, we seem to think that when it comes to 'disinfecting' things; from swimming pools to seedling trays, pots or old containers being re-purposed for a new gardening plot or potato bed, we simply accept the not so common sense commonly accepted idea that all we need do is splash some bleach and water around and everything will be peachy and all the things we need dead will be dead and nothing bad will really have happened.

Unfortunately for the environment and for us, this is simply not true. Oh yes, the 'experts' (have you noticed they are all from the chemical companies?) will insist that chlorine bleach breaks down into simple salts and water after a few days... well, sort of.

Meet the Organochlorines

What they don't tell you, and you do not ask because no one has brought it to your attention and you have plenty enough to think about is that chlorine bleach has been the subject of perhaps the single longest running and persuasive advertising and marketing campaign of all time, and is, in fact, the source of something called organochlorines.

Organochlorines is a long word and it is not pronounced as you might expect; the emphasis is on the third syllable, not the second. Organochlorines are just what they say in their name, actually, but what is that, precisely? It is newly formed organic compounds which contain chlorine in their makeup. Newly formed organic compounds that did not exist before you put the chlorine bleach into the environment and let it float about and meet some nice organic compounds who had never encountered it before... at which point they were changed into something that had not been there before. Now, this might not be so bad, but the problem is that organochlorines are also what is called 'environmentally persistent' which means they do not readily break down in the environment and instead tend to persist and stick around a long time.

You are probably saying to yourself that this is getting a little over the top now, and really you just want to disinfect your pots and trays and get back to the garden. I know, sorry about that. But before we leave this section, I think I should tell you the most popularly known organochlorine's name, because then you might change your mind just a teensy weensy bit about chlorine bleach.

Its name is dioxin. It is the most carcinogenic substance known on earth and it is a by-product of chlorine bleach and a specific set of organic compounds which are found in water and in wood pulp and other materials.

The Safe and Eco-Friendly Alternative

Dioxin is the reason most modern (read First World) paper mills no longer use chlorine bleach to bleach their pulp, but instead use hydrogen peroxide.

You can, in fact, use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect your pots and trays. A 20 minute soak in a 3 percent solution will disinfect anything - but if you don't want to wait, then whip out white vinegar and just spray it straight onto the pots and trays after you've given them a regular cleaning to remove old dirt and grime. Then wipe them off with a clean rag, rinse them in clean water and set them out to dry.

Straight white vinegar is such a strong acid it will kill just about everything. And if you want to go the full distance, spray with alternate sprays of white vinegar and 3 percent H2O2 and you will effectively kill and disinfect to a level that is superior enough to be used in a commercial kitchen. Fully 99.7% of all bacteria, fungi, mold, and pathogens including e-coli cannot stand up to this powerful duo.

So, go ahead and reuse those trays and pots, even if some of the plants in them didn't make it or croaked mysteriously if you feel so bold; but do be sure to give them a good washing in dish soap and warm water (no, don't burn your hands, no point, the temperature will not be hot enough to kill anything even as it scalds your fingers) but do give them the old one-two with your squirt bottles of vinegar and H2O2 as the actual disinfectant that they should receive before you place clean soil and seed into them for the next crop.

Happy gardening!

Clean seedling trays for reuse with white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide as a safe and clean alternative to bleach.
Clean seedling trays for reuse with white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide as a safe and clean alternative to bleach. | Source

Do you reuse seedling trays?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you, Jacob... You must be a professional chemist, maybe? I appreciate that. I do like to use bleach/water, 1:10, but will consider the use of peroxide & vinegar. It would be nice to know the ratio to mix.

      I've been having problems with fungus development in recycled pots that have been disinfected. I'm thinking that it may be from the old plastic watering can I use that always has 'floaties' in the water.

      On the subject of environmentally safe weed killers, I've had better luck pouring boiling water on weeds than I have with the use of the high acid vinegar.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Disinfecting with household bleach (sodium hypochlorite) does not create dioxins. Please stop perpetuating this myth.

      Bleaching with elemental chlorine gas creates dioxins. That's what paper mills used to do. It's a completely different process from disinfecting with liquid bleach.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Thank you, this helped convert me, no more bleach.

    • profile image 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for a very informative article! How strong is the vinegar you recommend spraying? I have 99% vinegar I bought to spray thistles with when I had a sudden invasion during last summer here in South Africa. Of course I diluted it but works better then roundup could ever work....

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great ideas for reducing our impact.

    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 

      7 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      I used to reuse things a lot in my garden, but I haven't done much gardening (veggies gardening) lately. My flower garden is pretty much set with nothing added in the past years. However, I commend you for your recycle/reuse practices, and for the use of items that are Eco-friendly.

      Great hub. Voted up and useful.

    • donnah75 profile image

      Donna Hilbrandt 

      7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Awesome hub! I had no idea that bleach breaks down into dioxin. That is so toxic! I appreciate the pot preparation ideas. Pinning for later reference.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Thank you so much for your information :))))

    • rbm profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Hi nifwlseirff! This is a really good question. Terracotta is a wonderful pot material for its water retention and temperature control, but the issue of transferring of mold, mildew, and diseases is a serious one. Because terracotta is unglazed clay, it can harbor bacteria, fungi etc. throughout the structure of the pot. That means, wiping surfaces clean is an inadequate solution.

      There are two ways to approach solving the problem. One is heat, and the other is complete submersion in a sanitizing liquid. Both require time. When using heat, you must heat the pot until all of the clay has reached a minimum temperature of 240F. Keep the pot(s) at this temperature for about 2 hours. You can do this in your oven, and you should start with a dry pot. This may create fumes.

      If using a liquid submersion, you will want at minimum a 50% vinegar solution and the pot should soak in the liquid for 1-2 hours. If you use a liquid submersion, you will need to dry the pot thoroughly for a day or two, and then submerge it in clean water for 2-4 hours to remove the vinegar residue. You might also consider using baking soda or neem oil to clean the interior of the pot after either process.

    • profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 

      7 years ago from Germany

      I re-use all my pots and seedling trays, and didn't have many problems in Australia. However, here (Germany) I've had more problems with mildew, mold, and other plant diseases, and need to be more careful. Any ideas how to 'disinfect' and clean terracotta pots? They seem to be the worst carriers of plant illnesses in my garden.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      8 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Great hub! I re-use my flower trays, the one with all the holes in them, to store my home grown potatoes. It allows air to circulate around them and they will keep longer. I also re-use my coffee and tea grounds in my garden. I keep my small plant pots to plant my seedlings in too. Great cleaning tips, I did not know about the hydrogen peroxide. I will be using that instead of plain soap and water. Voted this up and useful!


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